With clear roots in country and folk, two very structured genres, “The River” hooks the ear with a series of surprising melodic and harmonic shifts. We hear this first at 0:15, when Mae follows the opening two traditional-sounding lines with a third (“The river’s gonna wash my sins away”) that runs unexpectedly up through a diminished chord. How did we get here? Suddenly the music is unresolved, and remains so until one more surprising shift, at 0:26, on the words “make me forget.” Resolution comes on the succeeding phrase, “my sorrow.” That’s some nifty songwriting–uncomplicated but subtly startling–and Mae uses it all to set up her bittersweet chorus. It begins with one more musical shift: that heartbreaking half-step she takes in the phrase “I can’t swim” (1:02), which starts the major-key chorus with a minor-key twist. Even the lyrics provide a subtle shock here, aurally–when she gets to the phrase “even if I could,” the lack of rhyme isn’t what the ear expects. But she has slyly shifted the rhyme scheme, which the listener catches onto as the chorus continues. More niftiness.
And maybe niftiest of all is how everything is delivered by a young, big-voiced singer who seems anachronistically delighted to use her vocal substance in service of small musical moments. No “American Idol”-ish histrionics for this big voice. One example: listen to how differently she sings the word “I” the first two times she says it: first, the opening word of the song (“I done a bad thing, it’s okay”; 0:05) and second, the beginning of the second line, four seconds later (“I’m going down to the river today”). The first “I” is fast, easy, almost evasive; the second “I,” made resonant with the contracted “m,” feels deep, mighty, and mournful as it encompasses an extra half-beat in the singing. Words don’t do it justice so now I’ll be quiet.
“The River” is the lead track from Audra Mae’s debut EP, Haunt, released last week on SideOneDummy Records. The Oklahoma-born Mae is now based in L.A. and, speaking of big voices, happens to be Judy Garland’s grand niece.